Lack and Desire


Lack and Desire

Here’s C. S. Lewis on the unspeakable ultimate desire:

“[There is] something you were born desiring…which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for. You have never *had* it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we will still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.”

Whenever good old Jack talks like that, I’m utterly, helplessly rapt, because I started noticing and trying to explain to myself this “secret signature of my soul” years before I found him talking about it. His very descriptions of it inflame the “unappeasable want” itself.

Reading Matthew Cardin quote above from C.S. Lewis on a recent Facebook post reminded me of both my studies in the ancient Gnostic mythos and in Lacan’s notions of “lack” as loss of the object petite A – the impossible object of Desire.

I’ve always turned it (desiring) back on the notion of “lack” rather than desire. Lack awakens desire for that which is impossible in this world or any other world. What we lack is Being; existence itself. We are those who do not exist and are haunted by that need for existence (Being) we once had in a realm of fullness. (A Gnostic Notion) In the ancient Gnostic formulation we fell from the original wholeness-fullness (Pleroma) into this universe of lack without being – the great vastation (Emptiness). And yet there is a spark of the ancient fullness (Pleroma) in us that seeks above all things a return to the Pleroma. This is the core of the ancient Gnostic mythos. Lewis or his friend expresses this exactly.

The ancient Gnostics overturned (reversed) Plato’s philosophical heritage. In a sense that recalls the Symposium, Plato presupposes that there is always some deficiency or lack that needs supplementation. Because the range of such ‘supplements’ include learning and the pursuit of the virtues, there are some pleasures that are rightly cherished. But even they are deemed goods only insofar as they are a compensation for human imperfection. It is in this notion of ‘supplements’ that such thinkers as Derrida would follow Plato and fail utterly.
In ancient Gulak traditions of Tibetan Buddhism such notions of Lack or presented thus:

““The ultimate truth is posited as solely the negation of truth [that is, inherent existence] upon a subject that is a basis of negation…” (Tsongkhapa, 396). Thus, on this view, nothing exists ultimately. This lack of essence in phenomena, or “emptiness,” does not annul their appearance or conventional reality. Rather, emptiness is held to be the condition for the possibility for any appearance. To be empty means to arise dependently—to lack independent, real existence. Since nothing can be found to be independent, everything is said to be empty. Thus, in the Geluk tradition, emptiness is the nature of all phenomena (or their lack of independent nature), and all phenomena are necessarily empty.”1

So once again as in Matt Cardin’s quote from Lewis it is because we lack “existence” and are empty that we seek a return to that which we lost as we fell from the original fullness (Pleroma). I think we’ve all felt this sense that something was/is missing in our lives at some point. We assume as we get older that we can find it in ourselves, our loved ones, our jobs, our travels, our acquisitions of art or objects, etc., but in the end we never discover it. Some seek it in religion, others in philosophy. Some discover it is impossible in either some immanent or transcendent form, that neither an atheistic acceptance of nihil nor a religious acceptance of some Other fill this lack of Being. Some stand in the midst of this vastation – this Great Emptiness of Things and accept both it and themselves as empty. This is what Ligotti in his Conspiracy against the Human Race speaks of as “there is nowhere to go, no one to be, no one to know”. This sense of an acceptance of non-Being not as the negation of Being but rather in Parmenides sense of “Not-Being is”.

Of course, the old saw that this is to fall back into a pure sense of Idealism in the belief that it is reduce all being-appearance to consciousness of appearance as in Berkley’s well known “esse est percipi” is to misread what has been said. It’s this very casuistry of a split between Mind/Body dualism that suggests this eternal battle between Idealism/Materialism to begin with and arose clearly in Descartes (most adamantly).

If anything, my own pursuit of philosophy has centered around this split in Idealism/Materialism which has echoed to this day in every battle and conflict within philosophy since Kant. Even now in the Speculative Realists of our contemporary era in all of its various branches and sub-branches this split between a – what is now termed, Realist vs. Anti-Realism has taken root.

Some such as OOO (Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology) try to get around it through a return to Malebranche and an indirect ontology of the realism in which we never have direct access to the real object-world but only ever have access to its sensual-appearance (the manifest image) of the real object-world. The intermediary being something is “occasionalism”: Malebranche is known for his occasionalism, that is, his doctrine that God is the only causal agent, and that creatures merely provide the “occasion” for divine action. On the old textbook account, occasionalism was an ad hoc response to the purported problem in Descartes of how substances as distinct in nature as mind and body are can causally interact. Harman will secularize this occasionalism.

There have been many other approaches to this split and I don’t have the space in this post to go further. Zizek, New-Materialsm, Quentin Meillassoux, Deleuze and his followers, New Vitalism, etc. etc.

  1. Duckworth, Douglas, “Gelukpa [dge lugs pa]”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

1 thought on “Lack and Desire

  1. A lot of the above resonates with me. In fact when I was a little young thing reading about gnosticism and morphic resonance, I wrote this funny little thing:

    “In the beginning was a god (very different from the old God) of absolute freedom. She could imagine anything (new note 2023: a sort of fullness or completeness) . But as soon as she stopped imagining she ceased to be. Only her imagining self seemed to have any duration. This god became fascinated by the wonder of herself and desired to catch a glimpse of herself, so she turned back to see herself, but in the dark nothing was to be seen. So she gave being to light and fell immediately in love. Her love for herself gave rise to her desire for there to be light eternally. And so with this act our god gave up her freedom for love. The Past came into being, and absolute infinite freedom came crashing down.

    The Past existed because our God had seen herself as she once was. Our God was now haunted by her own beautiful image, frozen into the reality of the Past, forever beyond her power of change. But soon our god was not satisfied with her image. She knew it was her image but it was not truly fitting. She was a god of freedom. She had to find a way to demonstrate her freedom against the recurring presence of the Past, ever rushing away and rushing back. True the Past could no longer be changed; but yes it could be infinitely embellished. Hence the Future came and kept coming. And the glory of God incarnate was known.”

    Liked by 1 person

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